Hercules directed by Peter Sellars / A LOC-COC co-production

Hercules directed by Peter Sellars / A LOC-COC co-production

Hercules - photo by Michael CooperHandel – Hercules. A Canadian Opera Company / Lyric Opera Chicago co-production, seen April 11 2014. Director Peter Sellars, conductor Harry Bicket. Eric Owens (Hercules), David Daniels (Lichas), Richard Croft (Hyllus), Alice Coote (Dejanira), Lucy Crowe (Iole). Complete cast & creative plus tickets and dates here

I found this Sellars production to be in effect a semi-staging, with one permanent set, one recurring trick with the lighting (stars flicker in different colours, for different moods!) and one idea: Hercules is a present-day-cum-mythical soldier returning from the war, traumatized.

War has bad consequences on the people affected by it. (A rather original thought, yes.) Hercules’s wife is, the director’s notes tell us helpfully, on tranquilizers and also has a drink problem. Hercules, Dejanira and the captive Iole all deal with flashes of traumatic memories. And that’s about it. After Dejanira’s murder-by-shirt, the lights on stage intensify, the casket wrapped in an American flag is wheeled in, the conqueror’s son Hyllus marries the captive Iole, and everybody hugs. Community is reconciled (!) and there is hope.

The high points of the production are the individual characters that each singer manages to build almost independently. Even though the whole does not show very many vital signs — this Hercules remains an oratorio through and through — Richard Croft as Hyllus, Lucy Crowe as Iole and David Daniels as Lichas in particular are worth seeing the production for. Croft and Crowe are flawless vocally and give convincing and original personalities to their roles. Lichas crosses the border between the warrior’s public and family lives, and here in Daniels’ version he is fragile and perplexed, and this works really well.

Dramatically, Eric Owens is mostly given the task of projecting gravitas and statesmanship, but the supple and precise singing gives life to the otherwise cut-out figure of Hercules. Alice Coote, alas, has a stage presence that suggests (accurately or misleadingly) considerable effort behind every note sung, and this never allows me to enjoy her performances. The melisma runs sometimes come across as approximate, and certain notes acquire unexpected colours.

It’s always nice to hear Handel at the COC, and yes even if it means modern instruments, and Harry Bicket displayed penchant for a discreet, stylish, never all-out or opulent sound, which is all fitting with Hercules, probably the least luscious, seductive and playful of all of Handel’s creations. The score is consistently somber, barring one or two rowdy choruses, and making a slow da capo as viscerally stirring as a fast one can’t be an easy thing to do. No trouble at all, it seems, for Bicket and the COC orchestra tonight. Another thing to appreciate in the surprisingly underwhelming production.

Photo by Michael Cooper

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